Lebanon's Lessons For Somalia

By , Helena Cobban does research and writes on foreign affairs for Search for Common Ground in Washington. The views in her columns are her own.

THE rallying cry for those who urge caution in sending United States Marines to trouble spots is, "No more Lebanons!" But this easy slogan ignores the fact that, since World War II, there have been three American deployments in Lebanon - and only one was a failure. Of the others, one brought short-term success and one was so successful that it resulted in 10 years of social peace for Lebanon. As American Marines hit the beaches of Somalia, it is worth examining all three Lebanese precedents.

I worked in Lebanon as a journalist from 1974 through 1981. I went back in late 1982, and again in 1983, when the third Marine deployment started to run into trouble. I learned that when the political goals of the intervention - regarding the politics of Lebanon, not the US - were well defined, then the intervention had a good chance of success.

The instance most of the "No more Lebanons!" crowd remembers is the September 1982 dispatch of an American-dominated outfit called the Multi-National Force, known as MNF-2 since it was the force's second deployment. The MNF-2 deployment had US Marines positioned like sitting ducks on the Tarmac of Beirut International Airport. Elsewhere in the city, smaller British, French, and Italian units provided the "Multi-National" cover.

Recommended: Somalia: A timeline of change in a troubled country

MNF-2 was originally deployed because some of Lebanon's fiercest Maronite militias had carried out atrocious massacres of civilians in two Beirut refugee camps. The humanitarian impulse which sent the force was laudable. But the politics of its mission was fuzzy. In months - as the Pentagon later admitted - the mission ballooned every which way.

Meanwhile, a separate American force was training a Lebanese army, many of whose Maronite officers tried to drag it into sectarian fighting against the country's Shiite and Druze populations. Try telling a Shiite slum-dweller that the Americans at the airport were different from the Americans training their Lebanese foes: It wasn't easy.

None of which excuses the (presumably Shiite) individuals who devised a truck bomb that, in October 1983, blew up the Marine barracks, killing 241 people. Fifteen weeks later, President Reagan ordered a total withdrawal and the country sank into further chaos. MNF-2 was a disaster for everyone.

By contrast, MNF-1, which was deployed in August 1982 with a clear mandate, fulfilled its mission ahead of time with no casualties. An earlier deployment, in July 1958, fulfilled a far broader Lebanese mission, and withdrew within six months of deployment having suffered one casualty.

Unlike MNF-2, each of the successful operations had a clearly defined mission. And overseeing the implementation of each was an experienced senior diplomat who enjoyed the president's fullest trust. For MNF-2, by contrast, the fuzzy mission was overseen by a string of envoys.

By these yardsticks, the Somali deployment looks well-placed to succeed. The mission has been clearly communicated. And overseeing the political aspects of its implementation is retired foreign service officer Robert B. Oakley. He knows Somalia well from his time as ambassador there. It is also evident that he understands the lessons of Lebanon well.

Even before he reached Somalia, Mr. Oakley brought 200 Somali elders to Ethiopia to start talking about political reconciliation. That was a good move. One of the lessons of MNF-2 was that every force deployment, however humanitarian the mission, has an important political dimension. Another plus for the effort in Somalia is that the Americans there can draw on the international prestige and wisdom of the United Nations.

If the US and the UN can succeed in Somalia, then thousands upon thousands of Somalis will be saved. And the world's two new "big powers" can continue to work together to face the challenges ahead. If they fail, Somalis will not be the only ones who suffer.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...